One-third of COVID-19 patients suffer potentially permanent brain damage

HOUSTON — For most patients, COVID-19 is a severe threat to their lungs. While some patients deal with complications like stroke and headaches, doctors had not definitively linked the illness to brain trauma. Now, a study finds new evidence coronavirus can have a negative and possibly permanent impact on the brain.

Researchers from Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Pittsburgh say dozens of studies reveal COVID creates abnormal readings in one-third of patients. The team focused on electroencephalogram (EEG) tests taken as part of 80 different studies during the pandemic. An EEG examines the electrical activity in a patient’s brain. For the COVID patients seeing abnormalities, the issues centered in the frontal lobe of their brains.

“We found more than 600 patients that were affected in this way. Before, when we saw this in small groups we weren’t sure if this was just a coincidence, but now we can confidently say there is a connection,” says Baylor’s Dr. Zulfi Haneef in a university release.

Why do people get an EEG?

Study authors say altered mental activity is the most common reason patients undergo an EEG. This could mean the patient is displaying slower reactions, seizure-like symptoms, speech issues, confusion, or even has a harder time waking up after sedation.

For coronavirus patients with abnormal brain readings, slower electrical discharges in the frontal lobe were the common problem noted. Researchers say this may reveal irreparable brain damage, even after recovering from the virus.

“As we know, the brain is an organ that cannot regenerate, so if you have any damage it will more than likely be permanent or you will not fully recover,” Haneef explains.

“We know that the most likely entry point for the virus is the nose, so there seems to be a connection between the part of the brain that is located directly next to that entry point,” the assistant professor of neurology and neurophysiology adds. “Another interesting observation was that the average age of those affected was 61, one-third were female and two-thirds were males. This suggests that brain involvement in COVID-19 could be more common in older males. More research is needed but these findings show us these are areas to focus on as we move forward.”

Does this mean COVID-19 will always attack the brain?

Researchers suggest the brain damage being seen in some COVID patients may be the result of other complications from the virus. These may include problems with oxygen intake while sick or heart problems tied to COVID-19. The Baylor team recommends adding brain imaging the list of tests for coronavirus patients whenever doctors see something is wrong.

“These findings tell us that we need to try EEG on a wider range of patients, as well as other types of brain imaging, such as MRI or CT scans, that will give us a closer look at the frontal lobe,” Haneef concludes. “A lot of people think they will get the illness, get well and everything will go back to normal, but these findings tell us that there might be long-term issues, which is something we have suspected and now we are finding more evidence to back that up.”

The study appears in Seizure: European Journal of Epilepsy.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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